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Lessons learned / January 30, 2019
It’s been awhile since we checked in on the national scene — let’s take a look at what’s been happening, shall we? Oh, right: the federal government is fully functional again after a 35-day partial shutdown. What did we learn during all this time? The most important takeaway is that, hey whaddaya know, the government actually does essential things that most of us rely on in some way or another. That, followed by the fact the shutdown caused needless hardship for 800,000 federal employees and around a million contract workers who were the biggest victims of the entire mess.

Any other lessons? How about this: our president first and foremost is a complete imbecile, notwithstanding the trademark corruption and malice that also characterize his administration. None of this information will come as a shock to anyone outside the Trump bubble, but it’s still worth recounting how the whole shutdown business went down, if only to size up a display of abject stupidity that would put early-career Jim Carrey movie roles to shame.

To briefly recap: Republican members of Congress had begged Donald Trump not to close down the government over his vanity border wall that Mexico isn’t paying for, and the House and Senate went so far as to pass budget continuing resolutions to keep the government running — the vote in the Republican-run Senate was 100-0! (Who says bipartisanship is dead?) It looked like Trump was ready to sign the bill until Ann Coulter accused him of wimping out on his hard-line immigration promises. So Trump went ahead and took the government and its employees hostage in a desperate bid to impose his will on Congress, and Nancy Pelosi told him to go stuff it (with Chuck Schumer providing a capable assist by goading Trump into taking responsibility for the ensuing disaster) Mitch McConnell was his usual conniving self, opting to excuse himself from any leadership role whatsoever as Senate Majority Leader, and thus proceeded a month of Trump running his mouth — as if he has any other skill set — and the White House heaving and fro-ing, until the entire business finally ended with the wholesale surrender by our would-be autocrat in the White House.

Donald Trump, Mr. Art of the Deal, master negotiator, got exactly zilch for his efforts, other than tanking approval ratings. Correct that: he got one other thing — Ann Coulter is back to calling him a wimp! Lather, rinse, repeat.

In the aftermath of this sorry episode, there’s been a lot of reporting out of Washington that Trump and the Republicans are prepared to go the shutdown route again if they can’t get an agreement through Congress to fund the border wall. We’re supposed to take this threat seriously. Give me a break. If it happens — and I guess we can’t place a floor any longer on the idiocy of the Trump White House at this point — Trump will look at Richard Nixon’s poll numbers in his last days in office and wonder how did Tricky Dick ever get to be so popular. Enough silliness; let’s move on to less fantastical matters:

» Teachers around the state headed to Richmond on Monday to rally for better pay. As well they should! While you wouldn’t know it by looking around these parts, Virginia is one of the most prosperous states in the U.S. (thanks Northern Virginia.) We have no problem ponying up a billion-plus dollars to lure Amazon to the Arlington area — with a package that consists of solid public investments in education and transit (good) and direct subsidies to Amazon (bad). Yet when it comes to teacher pay, Virginia lags well behind the pack.

Since 2000, real earnings of Virginia teachers (salaries adjusted for inflation) have fallen by more than eight percent, placing the Commonwealth near the bottom of the heap with states like Colorado, Arizona and West Virginia. (Inflation-adjusted teacher salaries in Indiana have dropped by nearly 16 percent since 2000, making the Hoosier State the worst of the worst. All comparisons come courtesy of the National Center for Education Statistics, on the web at

Not by coincidence, many of the states with the most woeful records of compensating their school employees have been hit with teacher strikes, which in turn have received widespread public support — hardly a given considering these labor actions generally result in shuttered schools. (Note the contrast with what has been happening in Washington lately.) As a relatively wealthy state, Virginia has no excuse for not fixing its school spending deficits. This goes for spending on new school facilities, too, but that’s a story for a different column.

On the same day educators rallied in Richmond, the Republican leadership of the House of Delegates announced their upcoming budget plan would include a five percent teacher pay hike. Good for the House GOP — Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam also has a five percent increase in his budget, so the chances look good for real progress. (The Senate Finance Committee, which includes state Sen. Frank Ruff as a member, has yet to reveal its intentions.) A key difference between the proposals by the governor and the House GOP is the latter purportedly requires state government to pay the full share of the five percent pay increase. (Northam’s plan requires local governments to contribute half the required money, about $88 million.) Every year in Richmond, there’s much mysticism with the budget, but in broad strokes the story goes like this: governors propose lots of goodies in their biennial budget packages, opposition leaders in the General Assembly decry the high taxes and waste that allegedly are rife on every page, then lawmakers come out with their own wondrous plans that provide even more goodies, usually at no additional cost to taxpayers. There’s plenty of hocus-pocus and voodoo (and it’s not unusual for the most expensive items to be cancelled later when tax revenues fall short), but it is what it is. Caveat emptor, what will be will be, pick your own catchphrase to explain how it all works.

Just one observation: even with as five percent teacher pay increase, assuming it comes to pass, Virginia still has huge ground to make up to achieve parity with the rest of the U.S. (Teacher pay in Virginia ranks 34th in the country, according to the Virginia Education Association. By income, Virginia ranks 12th.) Switching gears for a second, the Amazon deal plainly illustrates where the state’s wealth lies — in urban and suburban areas like Northern Virginia where upper income earners generally choose to live, and it’s in that direction we should look for tax revenue to beef up state spending on education. You might think such a suggestion would be an easy sell in Southside Virginia, where we have a proportionately high number of teachers in the workforce and a proportionally low number of well-heeled taxpayers, but instead, we continue to be our own worst enemies. What do I mean by this? Indulge me a few more paragraphs and I’ll try to explain.

Elsewhere, you’ll find Frank Ruff’s constituent report. (You remember Frank. Wins re-election in a breeze.) By the standards of the genre, his latest column is a relative standout — heck, even I appreciate Ruff’s introduction (“In the news, you may have heard the term ‘tax conformity’. More than likely, your eyes have glazed over.” Hard to argue the senator’s point there.) Beneath the complexity of the issue, however, there’s something important to realize: the changes that are contemplated to Virginia’s tax code have almost nothing to do with the average taxpayer in Southside Virginia. Instead, the tax conformity debate is largely about protecting upper income earners from the unintended consequences of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 — a.k.a. the Trump tax cut, a law that was poorly crafted in too many ways to list in this space. Suffice it to say, Ruff’s game here is to blow smoke at constituents who don’t have time to wander through the fog of specifics.

For starters, Northam, who is pushing for conformity in state and federal tax codes, is right to call for simplification — it cuts out lots of hassles and administrative expense. Later in his column, Ruff takes a jab at the governor for trying to lay claim to “windfall taxes,” but he also writes this: “No longer can families deduct huge mortgage interest payments and other items.” What group do you think is described by this sentence? It’s not the overwhelming majority of Southside citizens; under the 2017 tax law, the mortgage interest deduction is capped on borrowing above $750,000, which is not a home sales figure typically associated with buyers around these parts. There’s much more with the tax conformity debate in a similar vein, but the upshot is this: taxpayers who stand to lose under the governor’s proposal are the same people who’ve already won out many times over with passage of the Republican tax law — corporations and the wealthy.

Like I said, there are complexities throughout this debate, and perhaps Ruff will choose to expound on some of them in future installments of his column. Yet the underlying reality is actually pretty simple: state government fails to invest in all kinds of things that would be hugely beneficial to Southside Virginia — better pay for teachers and deputies, improvements to rural broadband, roads and school facilities — and the money to improve this state of affairs has to come from somewhere. It’s obvious that Ruff priorities the interests of a small slice of well-to-do taxpayers in his Southside legislative district — many of them campaign contributors, naturally — over the broader good of his struggling constituents. There’s nothing new about this, alas, but as long as Ruff keeps trying to hide the fact, all the more important it remains for others to point it out.

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